‘Cultured meat is fool’s gold’: Environmentalists lock horns over controversial documentary

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Image: iStock/Brekbit
Image: iStock/Brekbit

Related tags: cultured meat, cell-based meat, vegan, Environment

Environmental campaigners clashed over the future of food in the wake of a controversial documentary 'Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed The Planet', aired on Channel 4 on Wednesday night (8 January) in the UK.

In the provocative programme, the vegan environmental campaigner George Monbiot argued that climate breakdown both threatens food supply and is being greatly exacerbated by the way we are producing food. His solution is lab-grown food of a type produced by Finnish start-up Solar Foods​, which grows protein that could be used to produce lab-grown or cultured meat.

Monbiot told the Oxford Real Farming Conference​, organised by organised by the Real Farming Trust, on 9 January: “I don’t think I’m going to make any friends here this afternoon.​”

In a panel debate, he continued: “This convention gives me the sense of a typewriter convention circa 1970 talking about their expansion plans. We are on the cusp of seeing possibly the greatest economic shift for 200 years; in food, the greatest technological shift in 2,000 years. And yet none of this has been acknowledged [here].”

While Monbiot is generally pessimistic about the future of the planet owing to climate breakdown, he said he was optimistic about cultured, or cell-based, protein.  

He said we’re about to witness a shift in the majority of food production growing from farms into factories ‘through precision fermentation of microbes… fermentation being the key technology'.

“Farming as we understand it is not resilient,”​ he said. “We’re seeing paper after paper talking about multiple breadbasket failures caused by two degrees of global heating. This food system that we have today, or anything resembling it, is not going to get us through the century. Even the idea that it could sustain current levels of production, let alone the levels required for 10 or 11 billion people, is fantasy land.”

What he called a ‘great technological shift from farm to factory’ comes ‘in the nick of time’. “Both for humanitarian reasons because it can feed the world reliably and for environmental reasons because we’re talking about reducing the land footprint of food production by about 10,000 times. Instead of using 40% of the planet’s surface to produce our food, we will be using 0.001%.”

In addition to cultured, or lab-grown meat, he claimed plant-based alternatives to casein and whey protein are ‘very easy to manufacture’ which will greatly impact the milk and dairy market.

“The only sector to be unaffected will be fruit and veg. Otherwise, for the first time in human history our staple foods will no longer be the products of photosynthesis; there are far more efficient pathways which can do it much faster.”

These developments will be devastating to livestock and dairy farmers, he said. “But the environmental impact will minimise. And from my point of view as an environmentalist this is the only good news around at the moment.

“The upside is a massive restoration of nature. A draw down of carbon from the atmosphere on an unprecedented scale. Possibly the ending of the sixth great extinction. The recovery of the abundance and diversity of wildlife... that is a prospect that is at least worth investigating.”

Cell-based meat is 'fool's gold' 

Panellist Richard Young, policy director at the Sustainable Farming Trust, disagreed.

His organisation believes that the negative environmental effects of livestock farming is based on intensive factory farming practices and that locally sourced meat from grass-fed animals makes up an essential part of a more sustainable food system. 

"There's one very fundamental difference between George and us which comes down to the role of livestock,”​ said Young. “Almost everything George is concerned about in terms of the destruction of the natural world, the problems of intensive farming; we share those concerns."

But he added that ‘false statistics’ on the damage to the environment caused by meat were giving people the impression “they can fly around the world as much as they want providing they cut back on their meat consumption".

He also called cell-based meat of a type proposed by Monbiot a 'fools gold'. "In some ways, if we could produce this miracle food to get rid of intensive livestock production there would be some advantages, but it strikes me that the very last thing we need is more processed food: we need to move to real food.” 

He added that cell-based and cultured-meats are yet to be fully evaluated in terms of the energy output they would require. "They're a false vision and a fool's gold",​ he declared.

Patrick Holden, founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust, said he wanted farmers to use land to improve the nutritional value of natural produce, which has been damaged by intensive farming. "It's not right to see the grassland and the meat separately from the vegetable and grain production, which has been nutritionally diminished as a result of intensive farming practices. Farmers need to introduce fertility building sections of their rotations making the land not to just produce food but to rebuild the natural capital we've lost… that’s the change that's necessary.” 

‘What we put on our plates must reflect the productive capacity of our land’

Another panellist, investigative journalist Joanna Blythman, questioned the health and sustainability claims of vegan diets and cultured meat. "What we put on our plates must reflect the productive capacity of our land,"​ she said.

She added that the 'fashionable plant-based concept' risked a diet lacking in vitamins b12, K, D, K2, d3, and the minerals potassium, sodium, calcium and essential fatty acids. 

"For me, any diet that leaves you deficient in essential micro-nutrients, a diet which by definition isn't nutritionally complete enough to sustain healthy human life is a non-starter," ​she observed.

She also took aim at the infamous EAT Lancet diet, which was put forward as a global diet solution. "I think that when ideologues living in affluent countries, where obesity, type 2 diabetes, and neuroticism around food are rampant, when they try to pressurise poor counties into eschewing animal foods and going plant-based, they're displaying crass insensitivity and a colonial white saviour mindset."

She questioned the food miles involved in many vegan ingredients, adding that the resilience of local food cultures and food systems was being undermined by 'plant-based dogma'. 

“Jack fruit and banana blossom, both unconvincing substitutes for meat, either come from Thailand in tins or are air-freighted fresh,”​ Blythman explained.

"I really feel that we've lost the plot when arcane imports and genetically modified fake meat burgers dreamed up by venture capitalists in Silicon Valley are portrayed as more acceptable than a lamb chop from a British hillside."

She went on to accuse Monbiot of promoting what she called "the most ultra-processed food: fake food emulating products conjured out of thin air. He tells us that technology will solve everything, that the future is already decided".

But these technologies, she said, have ‘huge problems’. “The doctrine of high-tech inevitability is propaganda. We should see it for what it is: those who claim to know the future are trying to own the future."

‘We can't pretend this change isn't happening’

Monbiot responded: "I've spent my whole life telling people what they don't want to hear: this isn't much different."​ He added that while he was extremely worried about his model of farmed food placing food production in the hands of corporations, "we shouldn't be burying our heads in the sand over this as I fear a lot of people here are doing. Against the disruption for subsistence farmers is going to be the fact that finally we have a means by which everybody on earth can be fed with an adequate and good diet without climate breakdown.

"If we carry on relying on farming, we're going to quickly hit a situation where probably billions of people are not going to be fed and that’s a far more serious situation than anything else I can envisage."

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